Press Box

More Spit Takes

Searching the news archives for evidence of spat-upon returning Viet vets.

Jim Lindgren, professor of law and Volokh Conspiracy blogger, has done yeoman’s work in scouring the news archives in search of evidence to refute Holy Cross College scholar Jerry Lembcke’s stand that the returning-Vietnam-vets-spat-upon-by-protesters story is an urban myth.

If you’re arriving late to the story, I’ve written about the spit myth a number of times  since 2000, most recently last week. Like Lembcke, I’ve have yet to see anything that corroborates the tales told by some vets about being gobbed on by protesters at airports while in uniform during the Vietnam War era.

In his Feb. 8 Volokh Conspiracy post, Lindgren presents his findings (scroll down and click the “show the rest” link for his complete case). Lindgren writes that, contrary to Lembcke’s claims, many easily discovered newspaper stories from the 1967-1972 era show servicemen were spat on frequently. He starts by citing a Bucks County Courier Times article from 1967 in which two sailors were spat on outside a high-school football game by a gang of about 10 young men, one of whom said, “We’re going to get a couple of sailors.” One of the attackers was sentenced to time in a reformatory following the assault.

He also cites James Reston of the New York Times, who wrote of servicemen guarding the Pentagon being spat on by anti-war protesters during the famous October 1967 demonstration. He has other stories about protesters slinging saliva on an ROTC officer, on ROTC students, and on a military recruiter. He points to a 1967 New York Times story in which Neil Sheehan writes that National Guardsmen were being trained not to react when protesters spat on them, as well as several other stories culled from the press to establish the culture of protester-spitting.

But for all his industry, Lindgren has failed so far to produce a contemporaneous news account—or other corroborative evidence—of a protester ambushing a returning veteran with a gob of spit, which I take as the main point of Lembcke’s book, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

Lembcke has responded to Lindgren’s challenge in an e-mail, which he’s sent to his critics. I publish it here as a sidebar. For the point-counterpoint effect, open Lindgren’s piece in one browser window and Lembcke’s response in another.

I, too, have been probing the newspaper archives. As I’ve written before, I’m prepared to believe that returning Vietnam vets were ambushed at the airports by protesters. I just want to see the evidence.

Many who believe that it was normal for protesters to spit on newly returned Vietnam vets point to a June 2, 1971, Washington Post article about the pro-Nixon Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. The story’s lede is about Vietnam veteran Jim Minarik, a founding member of the group and a “former paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division” who has plans to teach that fall at the University of Dayton. (The Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace were led by John O’Neill and opposed John Kerry’s Vietnam Veterans Against the War. O’Neill, you may recall, co-authored the 2004 book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.)

Minarik tells Post reporter Ken W. Clawson he was discharged from the Army on Dec. 10, 1968, and that an hour later—while he was still in uniform—two people spat on him as he walked a street in Oakland, Calif. He also claims in the article that a San Francisco restaurant denied him entrance that evening and someone called him a war criminal simply because he was in uniform. Conservative syndicated columnist Holmes Alexander repeated Minarik’s story in a widely published column that same month. Post reporter Clawson, who died in 1999, joined the Nixon administration in February 1972 as deputy communications director.

Minarik also appears in a Feb. 2, 1971, Elyia, Ohio, Chronicle-Telegram news story. It describes Minarik as a “conservative” University of Dayton student who had just appeared on The Mood on Campuses in 1971, a public television program moderated by Studs Terkel that gathered the views of students and professors. He tells the Chronicle-Telegram that he’s “very impressed” with President Nixon’s efforts to establish communications with students.

It goes without saying that none of these biographical details should disqualify Minarik’s testimony: Spit takes are disgusting whether flung on conservatives, socialists, or vegetarians. If he’s still alive, Minarik could advance the current debate by coming forward and providing more details.

Lindgren promises “More Blockbuster Revelations” about Jerry Lembcke’s work in days to come. I’ve ordered a CBS Evening News tape from 1971 in which a vet speaks about being spat on, so the debate is obviously far from over. If you can point me to a documented case of a returning Viet vet getting spat upon, please drop a line to E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. (Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)